“The heart of a school.”1 Roch Carrier, Canadian author and National Librarian, used this phrase to describe school libraries. Think of a school library you have visited recently. Would you describe it in the same way?
The fact is that if we took a tour across the province there would be a huge discrepancy, from shining examples of the ideal library to libraries that languish in a state of neglect.
Let’s stop for a moment on our imaginary tour at one school: Cathy Wever Elementary School in Hamilton, a school that celebrated its one-year anniversary this past September. It is a model of what every school of today should be: a beacon within its gritty, downtown neighbourhood. The library in Cathy Wever is an example of the ideal – truly the “heart of the school” – and it is here where we will spend the day.
Only 10 percent of Ontario elementary schools have a full-time teacher-librarian, compared with 42 percent 25 years ago.2
By its location within steps of the school’s front door, the library signals its status in the school. A sign says “Welcome” and the doors are wide open.
Sue MacLachlan, the school’s full-time teacher- librarian, is out making her rounds. She adeptly juggles a tangle of bulbs and wires while making repairs to AV equipment and determining which pieces need to be sent out for repair. Cathy Wever is a school of 654 students, with two floors and a generous footprint, making this a time-consuming task. This multitasking master chats with colleagues at the same time, updating them on new arrivals in the library, planning opportunities to work as a team, and fielding their requests for materials: “Is there a picture book suitable for Intermediate-level students touching on the theme of acceptance?” “Could a collection of books on pioneers be set aside?”
Back in the library, MacLachlan starts pulling books for the staff she connected with on her rounds while bracing for the bell to ring. Ten minutes to go … This room shines. Windows cover one full length of the room. The furniture is comfortable, unblemished, and clean. The space allows for an enviable floor plan consisting of computers, tables, a desk, a carpeted area for read-alouds, comfortable seating, two offices, a professional library, a book room, a circulation desk, and books – precisely organized shelves stocked with a large, current collection.
The bell rings. Today, like every day, MacLachlan will see students from Primary, Junior and Intermediate divisions. This is her preparation time. She does a quick survey: Lessons planned? Teaching materials organized? Marked work ready to return? She spends some time finishing marking and recording the results. For students in grades 6 to 8 at Cathy Wever, Information Studies is a separate subject on their report cards, for which MacLachlan is responsible. Just enough time is left in the period to shelve some books. Once again, that stack of new purchases sitting in the office will have to wait to be catalogued. (Cataloguing books is one of the time-consuming administrative tasks for MacLachlan to tackle. After putting a barcode and stamp on each book, she inputs data into the computer for cataloguing at a central board location. Central processing can take up to eight weeks, and only when it is completed is the book ready for circulation.)
Ten sets of eyes watch expectantly. Soon this speech and language class will hear Z Goes Home by Jon Agee, but first MacLachlan has a carefully planned introduction to guide them through:
“Tell me where I would find this book in the library.”
“Can you say fiction for me?” and similar questions leading to a discussion of the book itself.
“Let’s look at the back of the book. What information can we get from the back?”
At last, MacLachlan cracks the book open and digs in. This read-aloud is part theatre with the students playing starring roles. They echo, shout, and whisper the letters as they are revealed: “That’s an E!” “F! See the F!” “I found an O!”
Hands pop up. All students at Cathy Wever are learning reading strategies. This month, the strategy is making connections. “This is like the other book with the letters that fall down!” cries Logan triumphantly.
MacLachlan has Chicka Chicka Boom Boom ready. She continues to model making connections between texts as the class moves through the story. “Here is a palm tree; it reminds me of the coconut tree.”
MacLachlan graciously receives applause at the end of the story – the book was a hit. With MacLachlan’s help, the students reflect by drawing connections they made to the story in their journals. Only 15 minutes remain for book exchange. Not a problem, though. MacLachlan’s routines are embedded: the class efficiently makes their selections and when Mozart is played over the PA system they hustle back to the carpet: time to sign out the books and head back to class.
Ontario provides funding for one teacher-librarian for every 769 elementary students and 909 secondary students. Only 2 percent of elementar y schools have sufficient enrollment to generate funding for a full-time teacher-librarian 6
MacLachlan tosses out terms like “URL”, “DSL”, “Boolean search” and “Google” to a grade 7 class while conducting a brief review of Internet search techniques.
On the surface, today’s lesson seems straight-forward. Students are to analyze a website and write a paragraph explaining why they would or would not recommend it to a friend. A criterion is discussed and the class leaps in with confidence.
The website is a hoax site. By the end of the period only a few students are starting to catch on. Evidently, most have never considered that they should think critically about the information they routinely pull from the Internet. MacLachlan will continue to foster this life skill during subsequent lessons.
MacLachlan tidies up and checks to make sure her lessons are ready for the afternoon. She heads off for lunch as the grade 6 boys book club files in with their teacher leaders. Each week across the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, over one thousand boys in grades 3 and 6 participate in book clubs as part of the Read to Succeed initiative. Today they are listening to a read-aloud of selections from the Lord of the Rings while painting figures they will use to play a strategy game based on the book. Although shared reading of the rules booklet is scheduled for next week, many have already read through it at home. They leave reluctantly when the bell rings.
20 percent of elementary schools receive $500 or less per year from their school budget to purchase books and other library resources – sufficient to purchase no more than 20 to 30 books.7
This is not a library of the past, where hushed voices were de rigueur. Students at Cathy Wever anticipate fun, joy, and sharing when entering the school library – a formula that is working to foster a life-long love of reading.
Thankfully, MacLachlan can be heard over the howls of laughter pealing from this grade 2 class. The story MacLachlan is reading aloud is unbearably hilarious. She manages to read on with dramatic flair while fielding the usual grade 2 distractions of toys poking out of pockets, loose laces, and lost teeth.
“I’m looking for a book about space,” says Max.
“I am looking for something on alligators,” says Nicola.
“Where are the books on art?” asks Meadow.
During book exchange, MacLachlan circulates, helping the students find that “just right” book. “Mrs. MacLachlan, will you read this book to us?” Two students have cornered MacLachlan and are waiting eagerly for her answer.
MacLachlan settles down on a nearby bench. “Absolutely!” she says.
What can one do with 20 wiggly kindergarten students but wiggle along with them? MacLach lan sings and shakes with this energetic group until they are ready to settle. Soon her dramatic gestures, silly expressions, and repertoire of voices have them drawn into The Alphazeds by Shirley Glasser. The book is carefully chosen to reinforce concepts their teacher is focusing on in class. In this lesson, it’s letter recognition.
During the read aloud, MacLachlan feeds this group the background knowledge they need to transition smoothly through the story. “What letter is this?” “Yes! It is the letter L. This is a labyrinth. Have you ever seen a labyrinth?”
Hands bob in the air. Angie makes a predic- tion, “Maybe the D will hide!” Ethan makes a connection, “I have the letter E in my name!” While most of the class head off to exchange books, several students stay back, looking as if they may burst: “Read it again!” “That was fun!” “I saw a gigantic G!” “Can I pleeease take that book out?”
“A glossary is a mini-dictionary,” MacLachlan explains to this group of grade 3 students. “Where do we find the glossary?”
MacLachlan is doing a series of lessons on using nonfiction texts. Today she weaves her way through a sample text touching on features like the glossary, table of contents, bold print, and sidebars. MacLachlan will teach beginning research skills to this group throughout the year, and build on these skills in later grades.
This class has been patient throughout the lesson, but their news cannot wait any longer. Something sad has happened to one of their classmates. MacLachlan’s sympathy is heartfelt. She asks to sign the card the class is making, and then pulls a book from her collection. It is Trouble in theBarkers’ Class by Tomie de Paulo. It provides the ideal transition for this sombre group.
MacLachlan starts asking the students a series of questions: “How do we feel when we are accepted by our friends?” “How do you think this character is feeling?” “How do you know?” An opening has been provided. As MacLachlan reads, the group seizes the opportunity to share feelings, concerns, and connections to the story. By the time the book is read, the class mood has lifted and the children are ready for their book exchange. While the book was ideally suited to the mood of this class, MacLachlan had Trouble in the Barkers’ Class on hand for another reason. The HWDSB initiated a Character Builds program this year that has schools focus on 10 qualities (e.g., honesty, responsibility, courage). This month at Cathy Wever, the focus is on acceptance – a theme central to Trouble in the Barkers’ Class.
It’s the end of the school day for students at Cathy Wever. MacLachlan will be here for another hour and half, at least. Maja drops in. This grade 5 student is reading a series popular right now and cannot go home without the next book. Several other students drop by to return books and sign out new selections before heading home.
This school has an exercise room, stocked with new equipment – a definite perk for staff. After school fitness classes are offered, and if she is lucky MacLachlan will make one or two a week. Typically, though, she stays in the library to plan her lessons and take care of an exhaustive list of administrative tasks, such as organizing the library, making new borrower cards, checking over dues, repairing books, weeding the library, and processing new resources. MacLachlan helps with the school choir and the curling club, as well. She is the go-to person for the sound and lighting systems in the gym. She does all of these tasks with insatiable energy and a positive attitude.
MacLachlan has been in the role of teacher- librarian for nine years and has no plans for a change. “I love the opportunity I have to help children become life-long readers of anything – books, newspapers, magazines. I want them to be able to enrich their lives by knowing how to access all the things the world has to offer, to be able to access information, act on it, and use it to make the world a better place.”
Does MacLachlan believe she has the ideal job? “I am extremely fortunate to have this room, the staff, and the supportive principal we have at Cathy Wever,” she says. “If I had one wish, it would be to have a flexible schedule, so I could plan formally with staff and we could work even more as team.” You will hear no complaints from MacLachlan, however. “Where I am in this school, in this beautiful room, full of wonderful resources is just where I want to be,” she explains.
If the heart of Cathy Wever is the school library, Sue MacLachlan may just be the soul.
On April 5, 2006, a landmark study, School Libraries and Student Achievement in Ontario, led by Queen’s University educational researcher Dr .Donald Klinger, was released . Among the important findings of this research:
- The presence of a teacher-librarian was the single strongest predictor of reading enjoyment for both grade 3 and grade 6 students .
- Schools with teacher-librarians could be expected to have reading enjoyment scores that were 8 percent higher than average .
- Reading enjoyment is strongly and positively linked to student achievement.
- Schools with professionally trained school library staff could be expected to have reading achievement scores approximately 5 .5 percent higher than the average Grade 6 EQAO scores .3
In the late 1990s, the Ontario government made dramatic cuts to education funding . At the same time, it introduced a new per-pupil funding formula to allocate funding to school boards and schools . School library staffing is now funded at a rate of one teacher-librarian for every 769 elementary students within a school board.4
“Libraries play an essential role in stimulating students to improve their own achievement and foster a love of reading and learning .”
– Minister of Education Gerard Kennedy, May 26, 2005 5
Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that Ontario Liberals will commit $120 million over four years for additional books and librarians in elementary school libraries .
“This is the most significant investment in school libraries in a generation,” McGuinty said . “It will mean 1 .7 million new books each year – more than 430 per school – and additional librarians in schools across Ontario . Most importantly, it will mean high-quality, up-to-date books in the hands of young learners, and that’s great news for their reading, writing, and long-term prospects for success . 8
In The Crisis in Canada’s School Libraries, University of British Columbia professor Dr . Ken Haycock reported the following findings:
- In all cases, library staffing levels correlate with test scores – students benefit from more access each week to a qualified teacher-librarian .
- Improvements are even more dramatic when teacher-librarians play a leadership role by collaborating with classroom colleagues, teaching information literacy skills, and participating in technology management within the school .
- Higher spending on books and other materials – both for recreational reading and curriculum assignments – correlates with increased reading scores .
- Student achievement is higher in schools where the library is open all day and the teacher-librarian is on duty full-time .9
1. Ken Haycock .The Crisis in Canada’s School Libraries The Case for Reform and Re-investment (2003). Toronto: Association of Canadian Publishers and Heritage Canada, p. 9.
2. Ibid, p.11.
3. “School Libraries and Student Achievement in Ontario,” (2006) Toronto: People for Education and Queen’s University, pp.
2, 4, 5, 7. Available at peopleforeducation.com
4. Ibid, p. 10.
5. Ibid, p. 8.
6. Ibid, p. 22.
7. “The Annual Report on Ontario’s Public Schools” (2007). Toronto: People for Education and Queen’s University, p. 2. Available at peopleforeducation.com
8. “Books for Kids, Librarians for Schools: A Big Boost for Child Literacy,” Ontario Liberal Party news release, September 19, 2007. Available at newswire.ca
9. Haycock, p. 10.